Album Review: Have Gun, Will Travel, ‘Science From an Easy Chair’
If Sir Ernest Shackleton's fabled 1914 expedition to Antarctica seems like unorthodox source material for an album of Texas swing-country-roots fusion, the Tampa Bay-area quartet Have Gun, Will Travel clearly chose to look beyond the usual subject matter as inspiration for its fifth album. Shackleton and his crew spent several months marooned at the south pole with their ship -- the appropriately named Endurance -- stuck (and eventually wrecked) on a sheet of ice. Their stranger-than-fiction ordeal certainly hearkens back to a another time, place and worldview.
On the other hand, though Shackelton sailed as an officer of the British Navy, the hunger to explore new frontiers continues to strike deep chords within the American psyche. Listeners who don't pay especially close attention to the lyrics on Science From an Easy Chair are likely to associate its yearning for new horizons to the settlement of the American West -- the setting, incidentally, of the classic 1950s TV show from which the band takes its name.
What kind of music would men stranded at the bottom of the world have made if their sanity and lives literally depended on it? Would it have been dour? Bleak? Uplifting? It's impossible to say, but with all the explicit references to Shackleton's voyage, Have Gun, Will Travel revisit the scene armed with music that feels incongruous to the story they're telling -- rousing cowpunk, roadhouse twang and pop-country. In fact, most of this album sounds tailor-made to get a live, sweaty audience stomping along at a fever pitch rather than sitting around contemplating mortality.
The first reserved moment on Science From an Easy Chair doesn't arrive until the halfway mark, in the form of the gentle, organ-based "Goodnight, Sweet Chariot." And only the banjo-driven "Fortifying the James Caird" sounds true to the early-20th century period the album documents. Otherwise, Have Gun, Will Travel appear to be built for making high-energy music. The contrast here between music and lyrics is clearly intentional, and it makes for a brave artistic choice -- a reminder that artists don't have to be quite so literal when it comes to matching the tone of their music with the mood they're trying to convey.
Apparently, Have Gun, Will Travel took the dogged will of the men who survived Shackleton's expedition as fuel to do what their band does most naturally, which is essentially to rock out and keep the pedal mostly to the metal. Even in its most contemplative moments, Science From an Easy Chair matches storytelling with an almost relentlessly propulsive drive.